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New year, new philosophy?

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  December 30, 2008 01:01 PM

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As we turn the page on 2008, maybe the phrase is only fitting when it comes to the Red Sox:

Out with the old, in with the new.

After all, in 2009, the Sox may have to win with a markedly different approach.

In the wake of the failed pursuit of Mark Teixeira, the Red Sox have indeed reached agreements with pitcher Brad Penny ($5 million guaranteed) and catcher Josh Bard ($1.7 million, non-guaranteed) on one-year contracts, at least partially addressing some of the team’s lesser needs this offseason. The latter suggests the Sox still have every intention of re-signing Jason Varitek, but what is clear now is that they must prepare for the reality that they will have a less-potent offense in 2009, meaning that they will have to win with pitching and defense.

As for the news that the Sox approached the Florida Marlins about Hanley Ramirez, it only magnifies just how costly the Teixeira fallout is. Ramirez isn’t going anywhere after signing a six-year, $70 million extension that begins next year, meaning that the Marlins have him locked up at an average salary of $11.67 million over the next six years. Further, because Ramirez’s annual salaries do not begin to explode until 2012 -- his base climbs to $15 million that season -- there is little or no reason for the Marlins to deal him before that time, at the earliest.

So why did the Red Sox approach the Marlins? For the same reason they pursued Teixeira. They know their offense is going to slip in 2009. They know that shortstop, more than catcher, is the position where they can make the greatest offensive upgrade. And they know that they need a productive young hitter for the middle of their lineup after breaking up the tandem of David Ortiz and Manny Ramirez that served as the nucleus for their entire roster for nearly six years.

The more you examine the realities here, the more you cannot help but wonder why the Red Sox got to $170 million and stopped with Teixeira, leading to a scenario where the club was willing to offer prospects like Clay Buchholz and Jacoby Ellsbury in a package for a young player with a $70 million contract.

But we digress.

Let’s take a moment here to look at the teams Theo Epstein has built over the last six years, beginning with the club that set a major league record for slugging percentage in 2003. In Epstein’s six years as general manager, the Red Sox have scored more runs (5,352) than any team in baseball -- the Yankees are a whisker behind at 5,347 -- which only highlights the key to Boston’s success. The Sox believe in building a deep, talented lineup that gets into (and mauls) opposing bullpens, which is a complicated way of saying that they seek to make opposing pitchers less effective.

By consequence, the Sox make their own pitching better.

But now? There are going to be some easier outs in this lineup, independent of the questions surrounding Ortiz and Mike Lowell. Barring a dramatic development at shortstop or catcher, the Red Sox are likely to have relative soft spots at three positions in their lineup, depending on what happens with Ellsbury. For all of the flash that many Sox fans adore in Ellsbury’s dynamic playing style, there is still great question as to just how productive he can be.

From June 2 through Aug. 29 last year, Ellsbury batted .240 with nine walks and .582 OPS in 69 games. When the stock market went into that kind of dive, we called it a recession.

All of this brings us to the pitching and, in particular, to Penny, who is precisely the type of signing many envisioned when the Sox entered this offseason: relatively low risk, potentially high reward. Assuming Penny’s health -- and independent of his effectiveness -- the real benefit here may be that the Sox get to keep Justin Masterson in the bullpen. Unlike many years past -- like, say, the last six -- the strength of the club now appears to be their pitching staff, 1 through 12, where they appear to have the kind of depth that their lineup once possessed.

In theory, that should mean the Sox will need to score fewer runs, and it does raise the question now of whether they will attempt more sacrifice bunts. After all, will they be able to play for the big inning as much?

As for Bard, his acquisition in no way should be regarded as an outright dismissal of Varitek, whose agent, Scott Boras, continues to exchange ideas with the club. At the moment, at least, Bard should be seen as nothing more than an understudy, which is precisely the situation the Sox had hoped for when they acquired him the first time in the Coco Crisp deal with the Indians in January 2006. The Red Sox liked Bard then and they like him now, and they believed he eventually would have been able to handle Tim Wakefield. This time, however, there is the great likelihood that Bard will catch Wakefield and at least one other pitcher as the Red Sox finally make the inevitable transition from one catcher to another.

Does that rule out Jarrod Saltalamacchia or another deal of the like? Of course not, especially when the Sox have made it quite clear (to Florida, at least) that they would indeed part with Buchholz. But despite what Epstein said at the winter meetings, it seems unlikely that the Sox could go with two young, inexperienced catchers when they also have youth (or inconsistency) in center field and at shortstop, not to mention injury/durability issues in right field -- J.D. Drew played 109 games last year -- and third base.

If the Hanley Ramirez talks told us anything, it is that the Sox do have serious questions about Jed Lowrie’s ability to play shortstop every day, at least for a big-market, high-salaried team in the ironclad American League East. (Lowrie would make one heck of a utility man, however, and the Sox believe he could also handle first base in spot duty.)

In the end, the bottom line here is this: The Red Sox are concerned that their offense, as currently constituted, will not be sufficient. The Hanley Ramirez exploration -- which according to the SI report, took place before Teixeira signed with the Yankees -- proves it. The last time the Red Sox entered the season with a suspect offense was in 2006, when just happens to be the last time the Sox missed the playoffs. That club finished sixth in the AL in scoring and won 86 games -- both were the lows of the Epstein Era -- and the 2009 Sox are beginning to bear an eerie resemblance to that club.

The more time that passes this offseason, the more you cannot help but wonder if the 2009 Red Sox will have to win with pitching and defense.

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The final chapter on Teixeira and How Red Sox pitchers work the strike zone Jan. 7, 2009 and July 17, 2009. Some actual reporting – an obsession with Mark Teixeira and the art of pitching.
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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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